Thursday, January 21, 2016

Thomas Jefferson, the Commerce Clause, and Unlimited Governmental Power

This is a fascinating quote from Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to William Branch Giles, describing the exact point in time when the government first began to grow beyond the Constitution. Ah, if they would have stopped it back then, perhaps a precedent would have been laid in stone, and we wouldn't be in the situation where the government has expanded its power into almost every aspect of our lives.
"I see, as you do, and with the deepest affliction, the rapid strides with which the federal branch of our government is advancing towards the usurpation of all the rights reserved to the States, and the consolidation in itself of all powers, foreign and domestic; and that, too, by constructions which, if legitimate, leave no limits to their power.
"Take together the decisions of the federal court, the doctrines of the President, and the misconstructions of the constitutional compact acted on by the legislature of the federal branch, and it is but too evident, that the three ruling branches of that department are in combination to strip their colleagues, the State authorities, of the powers reserved by them, and to exercise themselves all functions foreign and domestic.
"Under the power to regulate commerce, they assume indefinitely that also over agriculture and manufactures.... Under the authority to establish post roads, they claim that of cutting down mountains for the construction of roads, of digging canals, and aided by a little sophistry on the words "general welfare," a right to do, not only the acts to effect that, which are specifically enumerated and permitted, but whatsoever they shall think, or pretend will be for the general welfare.
"And what is our resource for the preservation of the constitution?  Reason and argument?  You might as well reason and argue with the marble columns encircling them.  The representatives chosen by ourselves?  They are joined in the combination, some from incorrect views of government, some from corrupt ones, sufficient voting together to out-number the sound parts; and with majorities only of one, two, or three, bold enough to go forward in defiance.
"Are we then to stand to our arms, with the hot-headed Georgian?*   No. That must be the last resource, not to be thought of until much longer and greater sufferings.  If every infraction of a compact of so many parties is to be resisted at once, as a dissolution of it, none can ever be formed which would last one year.   We must have patience and longer endurance then with our brethren while under delusion; give them time for reflection and experience of consequences; keep ourselves in a situation to profit by the chapter of accidents; and separate from our companions only when the sole alternatives left, are the dissolution of our Union with them, or submission to a government without limitation of powers. Between these two evils, when we must make a choice, there can be no hesitation."
- Thomas Jefferson, Letter to William Branch Giles, December 26, 1825
*This was Georgia Governor George M. Troup, who had famously called on the people to "stand to their arms" when US forces were sent to Georgia to prevent the state from removing Creek Indians from their lands.